When I studied abroad for two semesters in Spain, I thought that I was getting a real taste of a “machismo” culture. I’ve come to realize that Spain has nothing on Nicaragua.
Men have control here in virtually every facet of life. The man is usually the sole breadwinner, decides when and how many children the family will have, and makes all important household decisions. Men are allowed, even encouraged, to drink publicly and the only bars in my town are men-only pool halls. Men drive buses, make laws, build cities, plan community events, and are more often elected officials. Coming from an egalitarian American culture, some days I can become furious just walking down the street, having to either ignore or confront the whistling, catcalling, and just plain rude vagos (men who just sit around with nothing to do on the streets).
In my host family’s homes, the household has surprisingly been absent of dominant male characters. The men either having died, or run-off a long time ago, I have been able to witness strong Nicaraguan women who raise their sons to be respectful, hardworking men who are not afraid to wash their own clothes or help out in the kitchen.
A typical day in the average Nicaraguan family would go something like this: The mother gets up at 5:30 am (or even as early as 3 am) to collect water in large containers, as it frequently goes out mid-morning, and she has to collect enough for the day’s washing, cooking and drinking. She washes dishes, starts the fire in the kitchen stove, sweeps and mops, takes a shower and prepares breakfast. During all of this, she also wakes up the children and gets them ready for school, which usually starts at 7 am. This means she has to iron their school uniforms and prepare a snack. The husband may get up a little later (however if they live out in the village, he may get up early as well to go out to the fields), eats a breakfast of rice and beans, cheese and tortillas prepared by his wife, and leaves for work (perhaps he is an agriculture worker, policeman, bus driver, truck driver, construction worker…) Throughout the day, the wife stays at home, usually accompanied by two or three small children who are not yet old enough for school. She takes care of them; washing the family’s clothes and the baby’s cloth diapers, constantly sweeping the floors since there is a thin line here in Nicaraguan between “inside” and “outside” and dirt, mud and trash are a constant nuisance. She begins to prepare lunch early; sorting and cleaning beans, cooking rice, cutting chicken…all of this she makes over a wood stove which constantly funnels smoke into the kitchen, her eyes, her lungs… Since the older children are gone at school, she will need to run to a nearby pulperia or tiny convenience store to buy daily necessities (matches, cheese, tortillas, bouillon cubes, toilet paper), and this can be done up to five times a day. The husband and children will come home at lunch time, and she will be expected to have the food ready and waiting for them, and also do all the clean-up (unless of course there is an older daughter around to help her). Then the whole process begins again for dinner. If she’s lucky, she’ll have a few spare moments in her day to visit a relative, play with the baby, listen to some music, or watch her favorite telenovela.
And this will be how she lives out her life. And this life starts early, as soon as they’re old enough to help run errands or cut vegetables. I’ve talked with Nicaraguan women who were married at 15 years old, their husband being twice their age. Teenage pregnancy is also common, with girls as young as 12 or 13 walking around with large pregnant bellies, their skinny frames barely supporting the extra weight. When these adolescent pregnancies occur, the father of the child usually doesn’t stick around, and the job of raising this child will be even more of a challenge. The girl will probably live with her own mother, relying on her monetary and child-raising support.
I recently saw an article about a man from the department of Rio San Juan, Nicaragua who claimed to have 30 children in four different countries; Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. What shocked me wasn’t the actual number of children (I’m sure it was exaggerated, right?) but the fact that he seemed to be bragging about it, and about the fact that he had no contact whatsoever with these children or their mothers. It’s perfectly acceptable here for men to shrug-off a pregnant girlfriend, claiming that “It’s not mine” and ride off into the sunset. It is also the man here who decides how many children he wants to have. Getting women to use family planning methods to avoid having up to 10 children is still a battle since men often refuse to use condoms, and don’t like the fact that their wife might use another method of birth control behind their back.
When hearing all of this, it becomes immediately apparent that it is a man’s world here in Nicaragua. Or is it? As I learn more about the culture and witness more interactions, I am becoming to realize the power and strength that women possess.
This realization occurred to me during the annual national Vaccination Campaign. I tagged along with my Health Center staff giving educational health talks and helping to give out anti-polio drops and anti-parasite pills to the children. What surprised me was the that little boys cowered in fear, sobbing relentlessly and clutching to their mothers at the thought of an injection or even just oral anti-polio drops, whereas the little girls were the bravest ones, putting on tough faces and squeezing their mother’s hand tight, but never making a peep. There was one case of a tough-looking boy who was 15 years old who was so scared of having a Tetanus booster shot that he retreated to the back of the classroom (we were vaccinating in the school) and refused to come close to us or even make eye contact. Despite multiple pleadings on behalf of the nurses and myself and even his classmates, he still flat-out refused to get the shot. After we waited for about a half an hour, we had to eventually give up on him and move on. Once again, he was 15 years old.
I thought this was pretty strange, but after talking to fellow Peace Corps volunteers who had also been working in the Vaccination Campaign, I found that our experiences were actually very similar. They too had seen more wimpy boys than girls, and often had amusing stories to tell as well. Wait a minute, weren’t the Nicaraguan men supposed to be the tough ones??
I started thinking about this phenomenon and realized that little boys are brought up by amazing, caring, nurturing Nicaraguan mothers, not having much contact with their fathers until they are older and big enough to help out in the field/shop, etc. These little boys were so dependent on their powerful mothers, who took-on the lion’s share of raising them, that they didn’t know how to be “men” yet. Howerver, I can even see this in older men (especially those who still live with their parents, which is common). One of my 33 year-old Nicaraguan male friends was complaining the other afternoon about being hungry; apparently he hadn’t eaten all day. “Why not?” I asked him, “Go eat something!” “My mom is out of town…” he replied rather sheepishly. Apparently this grown man was incapable of fixing himself his own meal in his mother’s absence.
What would happen if all the women in Nicaragua suddenly disappeared for a few days? I really think the country would fall apart. Despite all of the country’s machismo tendencies, it is really the Nicaraguan housewife who holds it all together. She cleans, washes, cooks, feeds, keeps in touch with relatives, comforts sick children - and she does it without stopping. Mother’s Day in Nicaragua is May 30th, and the whole country refers to May as “The Month of Mothers.” They go a little crazy down here for their Mothers, and now I understand why, and I’m glad they do. Behind every macho, tough-guy, Nicaraguan man’s man, there is a sweet, hard-working mother, someone who will gladly drop everything to wash a few of his clothes or heat up a plate of beans and rice whenever he decides to drop-in and visit. So, who wins the battle of the sexes in Nicaragua? Well, I think the women just like to let them men think they do.